By Acid Reign /email@example.com on August 22, 2012
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for our Iron Bowl preview. On November 24th, the Tide and Tigers will tee it up for the 77th time. It’s once again the highlight of Thanksgiving weekend, and is likely to be the CBS afternoon headliner. This one will likely decided the winner of the SEC Western Division. I would not be surprised this year to see an SEC West team win the division with a 5-3 league record. There’s just too much parity in the West, and every team has at least some major concerns. It could be another year of upsets in the league.
Both teams’ November schedules are designed for tune-ups heading into this game. The week before the Iron Bowl, Alabama hosts Western Carolina, and Auburn hosts Alabama A&M. This should give the coaches a chance to tune up a quarter or so with the starters, then rest key players for the big game the next week. Prior to the Iron Bowl, Auburn will have played a schedule that starts out murderous, then moderates as the fall leaves turn. The Tigers open with Clemson in Atlanta, Mississippi State in Starkville, Louisiana Monroe, LSU, an open date, Arkansas, Ole Miss in Oxford, Vanderbilt in Nashville, Texas A&M, New Mexico State for homecoming, Georgia, and Alabama A&M.
Some might argue that Alabama might take a step back with a number of key defensive stars graduated, but they have a very favorable schedule that could set up a championship run. In the Tide’s first 8 games, the only top-flight opponents are Michigan and Arkansas. And honestly, I think folks are skeptical about both teams, and will have to see them become contenders on the field. A road trip to Missouri could be problematic, but Alabama has an open date the week before, giving plenty of time for extra defensive preparation. Alabama opens in Arlington, Texas with the Wolverines, then has Western Kentucky, Arkansas in Fayetteville, Florida Atlantic, Ole Miss, an open date, Missouri in Columbia, Tennessee in Knoxville, and Mississippi State in their first 8 games. Unless Arkansas lives up to pre-bike-crash billing, Alabama has a great chance to be 8-0 going into Baton Rouge. After slugging it out in Death Valley with LSU, Bama hosts Texas A&M and Western Carolina before Auburn comes to town.
Alabama’s greatest reason for optimism this season is on offense, where they return 4 all-star starters on the offensive line, and a veteran, highly efficient quarterback. Like all Western Division teams, there are questions, such as how Alabama will replace superstar Trent Richardson, a bevy of NFL-bound tight ends. The Tide is still looking for that go-to receiver to replace Julio Jones from a couple of years ago. I think the biggest question might be new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who’s largely made his name as a quarterback guru. Much like Auburn’s Scot Loeffler, Nussmeier has coached a few good quarterbacks in his day, including a pro-bowl year for Marc Bulger with the Rams, and Jake Locker with Washington. Insert tired old saw about “hasn’t seen SEC defenses” here. Nussmeier will have a good situation at Alabama. The Tide does have talent at the skill positions, and junior quarterback A. J. McCarron quietly became one of the better decision-makers at quarterback in the league as last season progressed. His passing in the BCS Title game was the main reason we weren’t treated to another single-digit mud-wrestle in the game.
If there’s hope for the rest of the SEC-West against Alabama, it’s that the defense is replacing 6 NFL-bound starters. The bad news is that most of the replacements have had extensive SEC experience over the past couple of years. It’s always good to have experience coming back, although there’s usually a reason that new senior starter has been coming off the bench for the past two seasons. I think the biggest questions are experienced defensive depth this season, and the secondary. I know at Auburn I always cringed when the succession plan at any position was to plug in a junior college player, and that’s what Alabama is doing at one starting cornerback spot. Of course, sometimes the JUCO guy is just that good. See Cam Newton a couple of years ago at Auburn! There are plenty of recognizable names left on the Tide defense this year, including talented senior end Damion Square, and senior linebacker Nico Johnson. Junior corner Dee Milliner is as lock-down as they come, and senior safety Robert Lester has played a lot of football. Given Alabama’s dominance at stopping the run, and a possible depth situation in the secondary, expect the SEC West’s variety of air-it-out attacks to try and exploit this.
Tide special teams will be similar to previous years, as all the legs from the past two years return. We’ll be treated to a 3rd year of the Jeremy Shelley/Cade Foster kicking duo, and Cody Mandell reprises his punting duties. The Tide will have to find a few new return men, and an intriguing possibility is Christion Jones, who’s reputedly a game-breaker. Auburn got by well last season, using young players in the return game, but it’s also a possible source of mistakes, if they get the jitters. Tide coverage was pretty nasty last season, particularly the punt coverage unit, and figures to be again.
Auburn defensive line vs. Alabama offensive line: A front four of junior Dee Ford, junior Jeffery Whitaker, sophomore Angelo Blackson Wright, and junior Corey Lemonier should be pretty special, and Auburn is at least two deep behind the starters. A highlight of last year’s Iron Bowl for Tiger fans was Lemonier’s sack-fumble-touchdown. However, Bama’s line lost that battle but won the war. Bama’s Trent Richardson rumbled for 203 yards, and the Tide only allowed that one sack, as McCarron had time to hit 18 of 23 passes for 8 yards per attempt. All-world senior lineman Barrett Jones moves to center this year, and he may well be the most talented player on the entire Alabama squad. Senior Chance Warmack and junior Anthony Steen hold down the guard spots, and junior D. J. Fluker is a dominant right tackle. If there’s a weak spot on the Tide line, it might be sophomore left tackle Cyrus Kouandijo, who’s coming off a knee injury. He’s the least experienced of the Tide linemen. My guess is that if Kouandijo doesn’t work out, the Tide could move Warmack or even Jones out to left tackle, and fill in with younger talent in the middle. Alabama has one of the best lines in the conference, if not the best. Advantage: Alabama.
Auburn linebackers vs. Alabama backs: Auburn should have some combination of Darren Bates, Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Jonathan Evans starting for this one. Holland and Evans have been getting rave reviews in fall camp. Evans and Bates combined for 13 tackles in last year’s Iron Bowl, but had huge problems with Bama’s lead blockers and tight end coverage was non-existent. Auburn’s hopes for a better defense this year lie with more aggression from the front seven, and better direction by middle linebacker Jake Holland. While Alabama’s incumbent returning runner is junior Eddie Lacy, expect to see a lot of touted freshman T. J. Yeldon. We’ve seen coach Saban use freshman runners in the past heavily, and I expect to see that here as well. As freshmen, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson were major cogs in championship runs. Although he’s listed as a tight end, expect junior Jalston Fowler to get a few carries, particularly in the short-yardage situations. He’s a 240-pound load who runs like he’s angry at the world. My expectation is that the Auburn linebackers should show marked improvement if camp is any indication, and Bama’s contingent has yet to show that they can be headliners. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Alabama receivers: This season, Auburn has the depth to keep corners fresh. Sophomore Robensen Therezie and junior Chris Davis have the speed to match up with anyone, and there’s fast, talented guys two deep behind them. Aside from one long Kenny Bell catch in last year’s Iron Bowl, Auburn’s corners did their job on the Bama outside receivers, and they’ve arguably got a coaching upgrade this season. Alabama’s next big thing at receiver was supposed to be Duron Carter (son of Vikings great Anthony Carter), but Carter has left the team. Junior starters Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood have a good bit of experience, but neither has really been a go-to guy before. The bad news for Tiger fans is that news from Bama’s fall camp indicates that communication between Bama’s wide receivers and A. J. McCarron has been excellent. Still, I’ll go with Auburn’s veteran corners, for now. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Alabama secondary receivers and quarterback: There’s been movement in the Auburn secondary this fall, and running first team in fall camp right now are junior Ryan Smith and sophomore converted corner Jermaine Whitehead. Expected starters Erique Florence and veteran Demetruce McNeal have been slowed by injuries, and haven’t picked up the defense as quickly. Even so, all 4 guys should play a lot. Bama’s secondary receivers are led by senior tight end Michael Williams, and a whole lot of youth. For much of his career, Williams was known predominately as a 270 pound blocker, but he did catch 16 balls last season. If camp is any indication, Alabama will swing the ball out to the tailback a good bit. While Bama’s current list of tight ends might not impress, junior quarterback A. J. McCarron is the real deal. He’s got the arm to make all the throws, and it’s tough to force him into a mistake, as he threw only 5 interceptions in 14 games last season. Advantage: Alabama.
Punting: Auburn returns Ray Guy finalist punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Auburn punted 72 times last season, and only allowed 10 returns for 62 yards. Clark pinned 33 of those punts, nearly half, inside the opponent’s 20. Bama junior Cody Mandell averaged 39.3 yards per punt, with 11 pinned inside the 20 on 39 punts. Bama opponents only managed to return 11 balls for 51 yards. Auburn will use sophomore Quan Bray to return punts, who averaged 7.4 yards per return on 13 returns. Alabama will use some combination of Christion Jones and sophomore DeAndrew White, who returned a total of 5 punts last season for 67 yards. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn junior kicker Cody Parkey was a weapon last season on kickoffs, hammering 38 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. This year, with the rule changes on kickoffs, expect Auburn to instead try a lot of sky-kicks to the 5 or 10 yard line, and try to smother returners short of the 25 yard line with decent coverage unit that averaged 22.1 yards per return last season. Junior Bama kicker Cade Foster should benefit from the new rules as well. Foster averaged 63.3 yards per kickoff, with 5 touchbacks last season. Alabama’s coverage unit gave up 21.7 yards per return, skewed by two touchdowns. Dee Milliner and Christion Jones are Bama’s top listed kick returners. Milliner had one 21 yard return last year, and Jones had one for 32. Auburn utilized several return guys over the course of the season. Trey Mason averaged 26.4, Onterio McCalebb averaged 30.7, and Quan Bray averaged 24.2. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn junior Cody Parkey was 13 of 18 on field goal kicks last season, with a few key misses. Bama’s long range kicker, junior Cade Foster was only 2 of 9. Senior Jeremy Shelly hit 21 of 27. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Alabama defensive line: Auburn’s starting offensive line for A-Day from left to right was redshirt freshman Greg Robinson, senior John Sullen, sophomore Reese Dismukes, sophomore Chad Slade, and true freshman Patrick Miller. Sullen’s been slowed early in Auburn’s camp, and the name that’s gotten the most mention in fall camp is true freshman Alex Kozan. With sophomore guard-tackle Eric Mack out for the season, Auburn will have a decidedly young offensive line in 2012. Tiger fans would like to see things a lot more settled here, this close to the first game of the year. The Tide will go with 3 seniors up front, Damien Square, Quenton Dial and the big nose guard from Down Under, Jesse Williams. Junior Ed Stinson provides quality depth. On passing downs, look for sophomore linebacker Adrian Hubbard to move down to a rush-end spot. He was a sack-machine in spring drills this year. Advantage: Alabama.
Auburn backs vs. Alabama linebackers: Speed back Onterio McCalebb has been a factor for 3 years in the Auburn offense, and should be again. There was a battle in the spring for the “between the tackles” back, between sophomores Tre Mason and Corey Grant. Sophomore Mike Blakely provided elusiveness in the A-Day game. Junior All-American transfer from Illinois Jay Prosch has been a one-man wrecking crew at fullback. Every year we seem to hear the debate about how McCalebb can’t be an every-down back. And every year, McCalebb comes through, never missing practice while other backs are banged up. Other than an ankle tweak his freshman year in 2009, McCalebb has been astonishingly durable. By insider accounts, McCalebb has put in even more work this year, and is poised for an eye-popping season. Senior Bama linebacker Nico Johnson has been a major cog in a Bama squad that has won 35 games in the past three seasons. His backup C. J. Moseley has been through the wars as well. The other guys are much younger. Penciled in at the top of the depth chart are three sophomores, Adrian Hubbard, Xzavier Dickson, and Trey Depriest. There may be some some growing pains from this unit. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Alabama corners: Auburn senior Emory Blake is a proven weapon, but he spent much of last season banged up. A second outside receiver has yet to step up, although Auburn has talented candidates. The speedy sophomore Trovon Reed has the most explosiveness, if he can manage to stay healthy. Senior Travante Stallworth looked good in the A-Day game, and has a good bit of game experience. Younger players Sammie Coates and Jaylon Denson have had good fall camps thus far, and Auburn should have no dearth of weapons. Junior Dee Milliner is an outstanding SEC corner on one side. The Tide expects to use JUCO All-American Deion Belue on the other side. Behind those two are mostly freshmen. It’s worth noting that in last year’s Iron Bowl, Auburn wide receivers only caught 5 balls, and all of those were quick screens to Bray or Reed. That must change this year, or we’ll have another day of futility on offense. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Alabama safeties: The Auburn quarterback is likely to be sophomore Khiel Frazier. Frazier looked good this spring, and is an athletic guy. The chief Auburn secondary receiver is senior tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who has had a great Auburn career thus far. Lutz will likely be a high NFL draft pick in 2013. Bama veteran senior Robert Lester will hold down one safety spot. He’s solid, but is not the caliber of departed Mark Barron. Sophomore Vinnie Sunseri should start on the other side, after a solid freshman season coming off the bench. If Khiel Frazier develops like we hope, this could be an area that Auburn would have an advantage. Until I see it on the field, it’s Advantage: Even.
On paper, Alabama is stronger on both lines of scrimmage, and that usually translates to a win. To have any chance in this game, Auburn must win some battles up front, particularly on the defensive line. The Tigers must use their numbers, and superior speed to disrupt the Bama offense and force turnovers. Conversely, Auburn’s offensive line can’t let Alabama force mistakes in the backfield. Auburn may not gain 300 yards on offense, but they can avoid turnovers and giving Alabama good field position.
On offense, Frazier will likely have a bit of time to throw, especially if some first-down passes are called. But Bama swarms to the ball quickly. Lining up and punishing them on the ground will be next to impossible. Last year, Auburn scored on Alabama on defense and special teams. Those units must continue their production, to even this game up. Tiger hopes for victory come down to stopping Alabama’s veteran offense, and creating turnovers.
One historical note is that Alabama has underachieved in the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa, with the exception of the dreadful 2008 game. This has been a constant under the last 4 coaching staffs, so it bears watching this year.
Prediction: Unless Auburn develops a surprising vertical passing attack over the next three months, this one will be a battle on the ground. Alabama’s edge in quarterback experience is the difference, as the Tide eeks out a 23-17 victory at home.